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Hotel provides no-frills US blues experience

It is not the Heartbreak Hotel or the Ritz, and George Washington did not sleep there.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It is not the Heartbreak Hotel or the Ritz, and George Washington did not sleep there.

But The Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale is widely regarded as a historical exhibit of blues music.

And, oh yes: Muddy Waters did sleep there and Bessie Smith died there.

Waters and other blues icons roomed at the Riverside from the 1940s to early 1960s as they made their names in clubs throughout the South. For decades before that, the building was a hospital that served black people during segregation, and it was there that Smith died after an auto accident in 1937.

The former G.T. Thomas Hospital reopened as the Riverside in 1944 and has established a loyal group of fans who love its authenticity as a "bluesman" hotel.

It is a simple place: Rooms have single or double beds, and there are bathrooms on each of the two floors, one for women and one for men. But there is no cable TV or Internet access.

"I run a nice, clean and comfortable place," the hotel's owner, 71-year-old Frank "Rat" Ratliff, says matter-of-factly.

Mitch Goldstein, who manages the South African musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, extolls the hotel's simple authenticity and says Ratliff definitely underrates the property's appeal.

"It's not just a museum, but it is a place that you can sleep in," said Goldstein, of Cedar Grove, New Jersey. "Just to know that I spent a night in a room that Muddy Waters slept in is very cool."

The two-story building consists of the original eight-room former hospital and additional rooms built on, for a total of 21 guest rooms.

"In 1943 my mother, Z.L. Ratliff Hill, bought the property and had it expanded," Ratliff recalled. "She drew the plans of how she wanted it."

Ratliff said his mother was a seamstress and arranged to rent the hospital, which was later renovated into the hotel by Thomas, the hospital's namesake. She later bought the hotel from Thomas' widow in the summer of 1957.

The Ratliffs' living quarters were the former hospital's rooms and offices, but some of those were made into guest rooms, as well. All rooms are equipped with dressers and bed frames that have been there since the first day the doors opened as a hotel. Ratliff also has provided some creature comforts like a small refrigerator, microwave and a television.

"If I put new furniture or change the rooms, it would not appear to be the place the musicians stayed," Ratliff said. "That's the way the building was built. It stays like that. If I change it, I might as well close them doors, because people want it that way."

Blues fan and part-time musician Michael Waugh, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, agrees. He brought his wife and two young children to spend the night there last December.

"I thought it was incredible," Waugh said. "I am a huge fan of the blues and was looking for a blues experience."

The Waughs spent the night in the room used by Waters, and while it took a little time to adjust to the shared bathroom idea, the family took it in stride.

"For me to play my guitar where Muddy Waters played is pretty special. It provides me a bigger connection to the music," said Waugh, who plans to return to the hotel this year, around the Christmas holidays.

It costs between $65 and $70 per room, per night. "This is a family business, and I only go up on the fees when the taxes go up," Ratliff said.

He also said the bluesmen who stayed at the hotel had their favorite rooms. And while he has no plans to label the rooms, he tells each guest the history of each room and the history of the musicians who stayed there.

Ratliff said he gives each new guest a tour of the hotel and allows the guest to pick a room at check-in. "When they return, they just go to their rooms, and if they leave something there, it is still there when they return," he said.

Among the who's who of blues musicians who have spent time at the Riverside are Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson II and, of course, Muddy Waters, who lived on the property for several years. The Blind Boys of Alabama also stayed there when passing through the state.

"My mother rented by the week and by the night," Ratliff said. "She helped them out when they had no money. She fed them or gave them a place to stay when they was broke. And when they needed someone to co-sign on a loan, my mother did that. They always paid her back."

But even with all that musical talent at the hotel, none of it rubbed off on either him or his mother.

"My mother loved music and tried to play piano. She bought a piano but just pecked on it. She even got me music lessons when I was a kid, but I was not musically inclined," Ratliff said, laughing.

Ratliff, who worked for 23 years for Wonder Bread bakery, fully took over managing the hotel in 1997 when his mother died. He currently is grooming his daughter, Zelina L. Ratliff, 40, to continue the tradition.

Clarksdale Mayor Henry Espy is glad to hear that.

Although the building is rough in appearance, and surrounded by shuttered shotgun houses, long houses with all rooms extending in the same direction, it is one of the cornerstones to the town's resurgence, he said.

"When festival times come around, you cannot get into the place," Espy said. "Tourism is now the driving engine for not only Clarksdale but the (Mississippi River) Delta."

And along that line, the city hopes to redevelop property surrounding the hotel to include a park, walking trails, and even a catfish pond. The city also is seeking a grant to help rebuild the housing adjacent to the hotel.

"But we dare not mess with history. We want to keep it authentic," Espy said. "It is what it is, is how we describe the hotel. So many historic things are gone, and the place has not had a makeover. That would undermine the place, its authenticity.

"People come from all over the world to feel how things were then, to see the river, to see the cotton in the fields and feel the 112 degree heat. They want authenticity," Espy said. "It is what it is."


If You Go...

RIVERSIDE HOTEL: 615 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, Mississippi; 662-624-9163. Rates: $65-$70 room, shared bathrooms.